Saturday, May 10, 2008

How Rich People Can Save the World

Well, maybe not the whole world. But a significant part of it.

While thumbing through one or another of the shelter magazines I subscribe to--either for myself or for my interior-design-student daughter--I ran across a glossy ad for the newest addition to Chicago's already remarkable skyline: the Chicago Spire [note: the Flash home page doesn't work in Firefox], designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (whose presence will also soon be felt in Dallas, through one or more bridges across the Trinity River). Since part of my job entails teaching students about contemporary art and architecture, I try to keep up on the latest projects by renowned architects--but had somehow managed to miss this one. In addition, Chicago is flat-out the best American city in which to live (and yes, it's because I'm a Cubs fan), so my interest was immediately piqued. After all, the infamous 1871 fire that razed the city provided a tabula rasa on which major architects have imprinted the history of modern architecture, and Calatrava's building will certainly add an interesting dimension. Nonetheless, I'm absolutely appalled by it, and here's why.

The building will be 610 meters high (2000 feet) when it's finished, probably around 2011. Its total cost (at present estimates) will run about $2,400,000,000.00. And no, I did not add any extra zeros. A four-bedroom flat will set its owner back about $5.8 million, a 534 square-foot studio about $750,000, and if you want to live in the 10,293 square-foot penthouse, be prepared to shell out $40 million. Forty million dollars. U. S. currency (for whatever that's currently worth). My information, by the way, comes from the Spire page at the Best Chicago Condos website, and from the News section on the building's home page.

Dallas is trying hard to out-gun the big cities with impressive residences of its own. Most of them are absolute crap, designed by builders rather than architects, and cobbled together from vague associations with a romanticized, non-existent past (a la Thomas Kinkaid), or transplanted from inappropriate sources (like the so-called Croatian Village being built near me, and which is being flogged through Blogger; they're apparently too cheap to build their own web page). So I should be thankful when an actual architect of some repute, Scott Johnson (of the firm Johnson Fain), took on the job of designing the new Museum Tower in the "arts district" (don't get me started on that) down town. It will be built adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art, I. M. Pei's Meyerson Symphony Center, Renzo Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center, and Norman Foster's Winspear Opera House (under construction). A "sprawling park" will be built next door, over the Woodall Rogers Freeway (I'm afraid to check on cost estimates for this little enterprise).

Sure enough, a big ad shows up in this month's Architectural Digest (the epitome of house porn, but highly informative), flaunting (after a brief description of the tower's amenities) a starting price of $1.2 million. That's for a pied-a-terre of about 1450 square feet. If you want something larger, say 8,700 square feet, you might settle for the penthouse that takes up the entire top floor--for a mere pittance (compared to the Calatrava Spire) at $20 million. But then, this is Dallas, not Chicago. The cost of living is rather lower here, although so is the quality of life. (I know; not all who reside in this area consider themselves to be living in exile, and so may disagree with me in this regard.)

Here's the saving-the-world part: What if everyone who is considering plunking down a million or more on a flat in either tower were to use half of that to buy a home that's maybe not as impressive as an apartment in a "world-class" building, but certainly able to satisfy one's desire for extravagant spaces, and then spend the rest to buy rain forest? Not to build on, but to let be.

There are loads of $500,000 houses for sale in both cities today; it's a buyer's market. Think of the deal you could get.

When I saw the various models of Calatrava's building, I immediately thought of all the spiral designs that human beings have painted, carved, or built since we actually became human. The design reflects the economy of nature, and exhibits a mathematical purity and elegance unmatched by almost anything else. It's easy to see why Calatrava, who's work frequently evokes natural forms, would be attracted to it. The rain forest itself abounds in spirals: coiled snakes and bugs, baby ferns, snails, monkeys' tails, the eddies in rivers and streams.
But we're losing rain forest and its in-dwelling species (in addition to the lifeways of indigenous peoples) at an alarming rate. And so a movement is afoot that answers some of the absurdities of market economics (buy more, build more) by suggesting that we buy rain forest to keep the natives from having to sell it to the likes of the loggers and the oil exploration outfits. The plan is not without its critics, but the arguments in its favor are pretty compelling.

And think of the message if the Chicago Spire and the Museum Tower were to stand empty, or were never completed. If the funds were used for saving the rain forest instead, it would say something about our priorities and announce to the rest of the world that we had finally realized that there are more important things to do with our cash than live in absurdly extravagant homes. Human beings have already made an immeasurable aesthetic mark on the world; maybe it's time for us to stop using up enormous amounts of resources in preposterous efforts to convince ourselves further of how wonderful we are.

I am fully aware of the impact on the economies of Dallas and Chicago if these monuments to the great god of capital excess weren't built--or were built and never inhabited. Nevertheless, I also can't help but think of what that $2.4 billion going into the erection of the Spire could do to enhance the lives and local economies of rain forest dwellers (and, in the long run, toward saving our own lives and economies). And that doesn't even include the money that will be spent on the apartments themselves--nor the costs associated with the Museum Tower. Isn't it time for people who can actually afford these things to start asking themselves if there isn't a better way to spend their money?

Just askin'.

Photo credits: "Nautilus Cutaway Logarithmic Spiral," by Chris 73, Creative Commons License through Wikimedia Commons; "Polystichum setiferum" (no attribution), and "Shongololo (millipede) on tropical rain forest floor, Cogo District, Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, Africa" by OxonHutch, both Wikimedia Commons, both modified slightly.


krimzon11 said...

I tend to agree with you about you opinion of Dallas. While it is where I grew up, nothing of real value occurs's almost like fake entertainment. Not to mention the the razing of our own local land to chase the ever fleeting dream of the Cleavers. Good idea as far as the rain forests go, and also something I had thought of doing in the event that I become obscenely rich. This article also recalls a segment I saw on television not too long ago, regarding Harrison Ford and Conservation International. Screw an island in Dubai, or a $40 million penthouse. It seems, when the land is all gone, we're going to build in the ocean anyway.
Recently, I had the idea that, due to my growing frustration with the culture I live in, I should just become a monk, and live in a temple in backwoods Asia somewhere. I know running away from the problem won't help it any, but until Americans learn to pull their heads out of their asses, actually learn from history, realize that we can all work together to restructure our government, and overall way of life, all of this is going to continue.
All of this is coming from a 26 -year-old. Dear God, where are we heading?

Owlfarmer said...

The monk impulse is a natural one for thoughtful people, I think. Many's the time I've thought of looking for something like an abbey or a beginage myself(except for two things: I'm not very religious, and I'm pretty sure my husband would be unhappy about such a move). At my age and level of infirmity, activism is pretty much out of the question (hence the blog and the book). But at 26, and with the skills you're developing, you'll have something of value to offer a group (like the one you mentioned) that could use employees or volunteers with sympathetic hearts and minds. Of course, you'd have to give up the big bucks some are looking for in the design field, but there's serious potential for impact. Don't get discouraged; the world needs young people with vision and conscience and sense.

GEM said...

It was useful for me to peruse santiago calatrava' spiral buildings. What a palatial project! Ego inservice of other massive egos.
Closer to home, yesterday in our local newspaper was an advertisement for a similar project, though on a lesser scale, designed by one of our own architect darlings, Arthur Ericson, for well-heeled Vancouver purchasers. it seems the desire to set oneself apart as being special, a cognoscenti, is universal and results in the proliferation of such proud projects everywhere.
Your blog asks the right question - "Isn't it time for people who can actually afford these things to start asking themselves if there isn't a better way to spen their money?" The answer to it may result in less criminal violence meted out by frustrated polpulations. G and GEM

Owlfarmer said...

Your comment brings to mind a question that occurred to me yesterday: When someone is said to "earn" a million dollars (or any other absurdly high amount of money)earn this money? The argument against what some folk like to call the "death tax" (because it sounds more evil than "inheritance tax") unfair because it taxes money that's already been "earned" and taxed. And the people who complain the most are usually those with the most money--who could easily pay the tax on what someone other than they "earned" (if it truly can be called "earning"). What I make is most certainly earned (and as most teachers do, I think I'm way undercompensated for the amount of time and energy I spend on my job), and I could be accused of not appreciating how hard it is to run a corporation. So my attitude, although shared by many, is probably seen by folks who make much more money as envy or lack of appreciation for their valuable contributions to our national wellbeing. Right.

I think you're quite correct in suggesting that those on the low end of the economic continuum may be driven to violence by the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between have and have not. Frustration, despair, envy, and a culture that admires and rewards greed can't possibly inspire one to better oneself. For the life of me I can't see why folks who reap the benefits of this country's opportunities can't find ways to better the lot of those whose lives are negatively influenced by our way of life. Buying rain forest would help, and produce concrete results. But so would providing health care to everyone who needs it in this country, or funding community gardens so people can help feed themselves. I know that the problems are very complex, but inertia isn't a solution.

Thanks again for your input. I'll have to check on the Ericson building.